This December marks two years since the Rays landed Steven Souza in the massive eleven player deal with the San Diego Padres and Washington Nationals. At the time, it was a gut-wrenching move for fans since Wil Myers was a just a year removed from garnering AL Rookie of the Year honors and still it was somehow the Nationals and not the Rays who received the most appealing return, Trea Turner and Joe Ross. Nonetheless, fans could be excited that Souza was an intriguing piece who posted a robust .345/.427/.577 slash line while in Triple-A during the 2014 season and appeared poised to contribute to a major league team sooner rather than later.
He did just that in his first two seasons, but it’s not been enough to snuff out that initial sentiment as Tampa fans begrudgingly watched Wil Myers bounce back this year with a nearly 4 WAR season that was outdone by Trea Turner who put up an even more phenomenal 3.3 WAR in a mere 73 games. Meanwhile the Rays headliner hasn’t even eclipsed 3 WAR for his career.
Now entering his third season as the team’s starting right fielder, Souza is facing a make-or-break year. It is not so much about whether he’ll make it in the majors because he’s clearly proved that he can, but is he a key piece for the Ray’s future or is he just warming the seat for someone else?
Reason for Optimism
As you search for hope in Souza’s sabermetrics, it’s difficult to see past that egregious k%, but he did quietly put up a respectable 1.4 WAR per season in his short time in Tampa. In fact, he may have produced even more this past season if not for a hip injury he suffered diving for a catch midway through June.
In the first month of play, Steven Souza came out firing on all cylinders and continued to thrive by hitting just a shade under .270 with 9 homers in the first 46 games of the season. However, he just wasn’t the same when he returned from a month long stint on the disabled list. Virtually all of his offensive numbers took a hit as his batted ball launch angle and average exit velocity suffered. Take a look at the latter in this weekly breakdown:
Again, It’s impossible to determine the extent that this dip in exit velocity is the result of being hindered by a hip ailment, but it is reasonable to suggest that the injury, which would ultimately cut his season short, would affect his ability to rotate smoothly or comfortably in his swing. That dip combined with the poor launch angle likely explains why he saw a significant uptick in the number of routine flyballs that he started hitting.
Steven Souza eventually underwent surgery to repair his hip and he admitted the pain did bother him during his days on the active roster following the injury and probably interfered with his performance on the field.
Barring any lingering hip issues, it’s a good bet that his average exit velocity and launch angle will return to his career norms this season to give him a better chance to be successful when he does make contact.
His home run pace may have also suffered post injury, but he still exhibited the genuine power scouts believed he possessed by hitting 17 homers in 468 plate appearances. Since Souza generally has a stellar hr/fb and ISO, he should be able to sustain 20 homer power in a full season of plate appearances. Even if that’s not an elite number in a league that isn’t hurting for power, it’s in the upper half of all players and does a bit too compensate for the paltry average.
Perhaps the most encouraging step forward that Souza took in 2015 was in his defensive game. Not only did he display strong range in spite of possible limited moblity, he posted the 9th best UZR/150 among corner outfielders. If not for his arm, which scouts graded as an above average tool in the minors, he could have very well finished much higher.
Regardless, the reality is that Souza took several years to adjust in the minors, so it is indeed feasible that Souza, just entering his third season in the majors, simply needed time to acclimate to major league pitching before he could realize the full potential of the tools that made the Rays target him in the first place. Unfortunately, he’s already 27, which likely limits whatever his peak years might be even if he does develop further.
Reason for Doubt
Unquestioningly, the most concerning aspect of Souza’s game is that he has 310 k’s in 920 plate appearances, which means a third of the time this guy goes to the plate, he strikes out. With 2016 being his second full season in the Big Leagues, it’d be a good to see an increase in plate discipline, but his numbers don’t suggest that he’s made the adjustments that Ian Malinowski pinpointed early in 2015. See how his plate discipline numbers lineup to the league average:
We can deduct from his Z-Swing% and his O-Swing% that Souza actually displayed better than league average plate discipline by swinging more at pitches in the zone than normal while not chasing too many pitches outside of the zone; yet, despite that discerning eye, his contact rates are well below average. In fact, his zone contact ranked trailed only Melvin Upton for the unenviable title of worst in the league. It’s the same thing he’s struggled to do his entire major league career and whether it’s trouble recognizing pitches or timing, it is not an auspicious start to his career.
In addition to his struggles at putting the ball in play, his aggressive approach saw his BB% drop below 7%, and the average speed he demonstrated in the minors has not translated to majors as he swiped only 7 bags. To be fair, he only attempted 13 steals, but it’s just another example of an area where Souza hasn’t offensively contributed enough to compensate for his contact issues.
There are lot of ways to build a winning baseball team, but premium offense often comes from guys who play the weaker positions in the field (1B, RF, LF, DH), and the Rays are getting terrible offensive production at all of those positions comparatively speaking. Dickerson, Souza, Miller, and Franklin all rate towards the bottom of their respective positions in wRC+.
At the end of the day, Souza might be capable right fielder who puts up a little over 1 WAR a year, but the Rays need better than that. It’s not enough for Souza to have some surplus value, he needs to perform remarkably better this season if he wants to be more than a placeholder for the team or another guy traded while he still has some gleam as a prospect.
While we can only hope that he will reach that potential now that he’s finally healthy and experienced, one thing that is certain is that he has to find a way to do better than a strikeout once every three times he steps into the batter’s box.